Donald Trump spoke for an hour and ten minutes, and he did not seem as if he was enjoying it. Trump’s demeanor at the start of the speech was almost genial, and at points, he managed the twinkle in the eye that he gets at some of his rallies, such as when he was chiding Democrats for pledging “lawyers for everyone” if you come here illegally. But the length and repetition of the speech, full of State of the Union–style recitations of policy accomplishments and proposals and shout-outs to people in the gallery, drained the life out of him by the end. The closing peroration about the bold nature of Americans may have soared on the page, but fell flat because Trump was out of gas.
Trump had a lot more fun attacking Democrats and Biden, not always fairly but with a lot of well-chosen barbs that will hit home. Like Mike Pence, for example, he hit Joe Biden for opposing the raid that got Osama bin Laden. One of the best parts of the speech, which could probably have gone on longer at the expense of other sections, was a riff on liberal hypocrisy. One thing Trump did effectively throughout the speech was arguing that Biden’s record and proposals are not what you’d have heard at the Democrats’ convention or in Biden’s rhetoric. He drove home the point that Democrats didn’t talk about riots or disorder at all at their convention, but perked up on seeing more recent polling: “It’s too late, Joe.” Also, we may never know if he is sincere — he’s Trump — but, since taking office, no American president (even Reagan) has ever been this consistently, vocally insistent about the horror of abortion.
On the other hand, the bracing attacks on illegal immigration were out of tune with the convention’s prior odes to immigration and immigrants. Trump is still Trump. Trump’s “America First” riff returned to the themes of his Inaugural Address, complete with that phrase, with its unsavory history but undoubtedly lingering appeal to a lot of voters. While I would not endorse some of Trump’s bashing of trade, in particular, it offered a thematically coherent vision with real accomplishments for those who warm to this theme. And while some earlier convention speakers were criticized for ignoring the pandemic, it was the focus of an extended discussion from the president. He went out on a limb promising a vaccine by the new year or earlier, which is not particularly responsible but — in raw gambler’s terms — not a bad bet if you think you’re losing and it might turn the race around if it arrives.
This has been, on the whole, a very effective and visually striking convention, but at its heart was always the question of whether the other speakers could sell a vision of Trump and the Republican Party at odds with how many people — with reason — see Trump himself and his agenda. Trump didn’t go and do anything outrageous tonight, but the overstuffed nature of his speech and its listless ending felt like a letdown at the end. It remains to be seen if Trump can muster the focus and joie de vivre he will need to keep the momentum going and not re-dig his own holes down the stretch run.